Don’t Write a Superhero Movie

A guy I never met before wrote me an email. He told me how he needs unique advice; not the sort that I would give to just anyone. He told me that he doesn’t want the lay-person guidance. He wanted monster guidance, the sort I save for special occasions. And then he cautioned: 

“Don’t tell me to write a superhero movie.” To which he added: “Because I’ve already got one.” 

For the record, there is no secret, insider-y screenwriter advice that only the special screenwriters get. It doesn’t work that way.  

And I would never, ever, tell anyone to write a superhero movie. 

The best people in town, on the biggest writing assignments, making the most money, are writing superhero movies. The most valuable IP in town powers superhero movies, without which… Forget about it! At the end of their too long day, they don’t want one more set down in front of them from a writer they don’t know. 

Even if you are hoping to build the career of a studio writer, to one day be considered for those sought out writing assignments, you have to give the executives something unique, something different, something that’s, as they say, both voice-y and noisy. A screenplay or TV pilot that offers a unique world view, interesting new characters, uncommon plot devices and turns, that stand out from the rest. At the end of the day, you can deliver a perfectly executed piece of work, but if it is not memorable, if it doesn’t stand out both in voice and in execution, it is not going to be able to move the needle for you. 

Another thing I would never, ever tell a writer to do: Chase trends. 

Trends, by their definition, are passing and fleeting. They have no permanence, and therefore shouldn’t be heavily considered when you’re exploring what to write next. Because, in all likelihood, by the time you write your momentarily on-trend script, that trend will have long passed. 

When I interviewed renowned manager Lee Stobby for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, he had this to say: “Don’t write something because you think that, ‘oh I have something that is totally like TAKEN’, don’t even bother. They’ve already made TAKEN. You’ve already lost. As soon as you start trying to chase that kind of dragon, the dragon’s already way ahead of you and you are never going to catch up to it.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of what’s happening in the market; on the contrary, you should be reading The Black List scripts every year, paying attention to the projects that are getting traction in the space. The same can and should be said for TV: read TV pilots. Know what’s getting picked up during pitch, development and pilot season, and from that, ascertain where your material would be able to find a home in the current marketplace. This shouldn’t determine what you write next, but rather help you develop a strong understanding of the landscape in which you are aiming to work.

If, for example, you are developing a vampire comedy, and there were three vampire comedies on the previous year’s The Black List, not to mention in the box office, you want to be aware of that. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write your vampire comedy, but rather that you may encounter some market fatigue for the genre by the time your material is ready to share. 

On the TV front, if you opt to write, say, a heavy political 1-hour drama, consider whether those are projects that the industry currently engages in. Many representation companies out there have what is known as “needs” lists, which break down what the various buyers, from CBS to Netflix, are looking for at any particular moment. Of course, most writers, and specifically un-repped writers, don’t have access to such information; however, you can study almost any outlet’s slate of content, see what they are currently announcing and/or developing, and bolster your own understanding or the sort of material that they are interested in. However, that doesn’t mean that you should write exclusively towards that. You should write what interests you and speaks to you, with a clear understanding of where it would “live” in the scripted episodic space. 

Don’t pursue your very own mashup of HARRY POTTER and THE HOBBIT. Or any other type of studio, big budget, seminal character mashup, for that matter. Those are other writers’ worlds. Other writers’ characters. In its never-ending search for new writers, the industry is eager to uncover exciting new voices. And new voices bring with them new characters and points of view, new takes on old stories that have never before been thought of, new angles and new story mechanisms to get the industry excited about them. 

As super-agent David Boxerbaum explained when I interviewed him for my book: 

“A voice is a unique point of view to a storytelling process. Someone that takes a character and layers it in a way that is different from what I’ve read in the past. Someone that takes a story and adds an element to it that we haven’t seen before. I know it sounds so cliché, but it is something that you know it when you read it. It stands out to you. When I read David Guggenheim’s draft of SAFEHOUSE—just to use that as an example—there was a voice to his action, there was a voice to his character work that spoke to something I had not read in many action movies—two-handers especially—in the past. So to me, that’s what a real definition of a voice is. Someone that takes a character, takes dialogue, takes structure, takes all of that and elevates it to a different level.”

There are other things that writers are told to stay away from: 

In both features and pilots, it’s often big, futuristic, possibly post-apocalyptic pilots and screenplays, the kind that require a ton of rule-making and world building. In general, the industry prefers such projects when based on pre-existing IP, such as a book or successful graphic novel, that solidifies some level of pre-existing and already-interested audience. Why? Not only are these projects often expensive to make, they are also considered period pieces, which in turn may limit their audience. Sure, STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE wasn’t based on IP, but it was also released in 1977, and much has changed since. Today, the industry favors “5-minutes-form-now” grounded Sci-Fi, in which the world is, for the most part, the same, all but for a single new element or technological advancement that facilitates a whole new story. For examples, look no further than SOURCE CODE and LOOPER, both of which capitalized on this approach. 

The challenge, on the creative side, with these futuristic period pieces is that often it’s hard to strike the balance between world building and story. I’ve certainly read such material where the setting up of the world and the solidifying of its rules had effectively swallowed up the story. Audiences, too, often don’t want to work too hard when going to the movies or starting on a new TV show. They want to be entertained, rather than forced to pay the closest of attention to every last detail in order to keep up with the world unfolding before them. Of course, if you are Jon Spaihts, you can do all the world building that you want, and no one will stand in your way.

Period, whether looking back or forward in both features and TV, remains a challenge for the industry. In TV, and when coming from a relatively new writer, it can be an outright non-starter. Accordingly, reps can be a little gun-shy when it comes to signing a writer based on a period-set original pilot, knowing that the battle to get them read may be that much harder. If the financial commitment in a feature is likely to be steeper due to period elements, it is ten times more so in the television space. Period pieces are challenging to produce due to location requirements, and often tough to get read and eventually seen, unless, of course, you have meaningful IP powering the piece or a known, name writer behind it. Years ago, period was a non-starter in features, as well. However, due to the glut of bio-pics and based-on-real-events material surfacing on prestige lists such as The Black List and The Hit List in recent years, they’ve become significantly more palatable to the feature-reading industry audience. 

Of course, there are a number of challenging genres and arenas that some industry executives and reps might tell you to steer clear of: Animation, which is only getting tougher to break in with on the feature side, is notably becoming more and more popular in the cable and digital space. It’s no longer just BOJACK HORSEMAN and ARCHER (not counting such staples as THE SIMPSONS and BOB’S BURGERS, of course); now we also have such shows BIG MOUTH, PARADISE P.D. and UNDONE, just to name a few. For a long time, RomComs were a non-starter, but Netflix has now single-handedly reversed that trend. Westerns can be costly, tough make, and rarely draw a broad audience. Coming-of-Age movies and sports movies/TV shows provide their own set of challenges while vampire and zombies, on the big screen at least, tend to run hot and cold by cycle. 

So… what does this mean? Are you now forever barred from writing your superhero vampire western, or your animated period RomCom? Here is my advice (with a little anecdote): 

Years ago, my client Michelle Steffes and I sat down to discuss her next project. She wanted to write a Mad Hatter origin story. Period piece set in Victorian England. Just a couple of years after Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND made a splash on the big screen, with Johnny Depp stepping into the Mad Hatter role. I was, to say the least, concerned about how receptive the market would be to that particular concept. Always eager to do the work, Michelle brought other ideas to the table, but it was obvious that none were as exciting to her as her Mad Hatter origin story. By talking to Michelle, I quickly understood that she loved the story, the time period, even the whimsy of the Lewis Carrol’s characters so much, that it would be, could be, worth a shot. So finally, we decided that this was the one that she should write. If only to get it out her system. And it worked: MAD became the script that got Michelle her very seasoned, very hard-working manager. The script that got her a major writing assignment. The screenplay that got her into the WGA. 

So yes, Michelle wrote a period piece. An origin story for someone else’s characters. The same characters which, just a couple of years earlier, showed up in a major motion picture by one of the industry’s heavy-hitting directors, with a cast made entirely of A-list actors. But she also did one more thing: She put her passion, front and center, on the page. And, consequently, wrote one of my absolute favorite scripts in this past decade. 

Which is what it all comes down to (and let me say it again): Putting your passion on the page. If it comes from a place of passion, from a need to write it, rather than just a new script you think you should be dabbling in, sure, write your super-hero mashup period piece. Go for that futuristic western riddled with zombies. Or better yet, write an animated vampire RomCom because… why not? If you HAVE TO write it, do it. Know the market, understand the odds, but then push forward. And if you can’t convince people with concept, convince them on the page. Throw out the rule book, put your head down, and tell that story that you are so passionate and excited about that day in and day out it brings you back to the page, back to the computer. The kind of scripts that you will be emboldened to fight for, no matter what the nay-sayers tell you.